“Christianity isn’t a religion… “It’s a reality.”
My friend of 24 years said that to me during an interesting conversation last month. And that should be the truth.
Christianity… following Christ… being Christ-like… should be a reality for those who wear the label of Christian. Yet, in reality, how often do we justify our words, actions, treatment of others… (or hear them justified) by convincing ourselves that “our faith” (or the label of “Christian”) is the reason that we have reacted/responded a certain way? Judged someone? Mistreated someone? How often do we claim to be “defending our faith”… “defending scripture”… “defending God”… when, in reality, we’re defending ourselves?
If your faith is, indeed, a reality – it does not need defending. If scripture is, indeed, a reality – it does not need defending. If your God is, indeed, a reality – He, most certainly, does not need defending. These things… faith, scripture, and God have stood the test of time and do not need your “defense”. They stand on their own.
In 1979, Bob Dylan publicly professed to have a relationship with Christ. And in 1979 and early 1980 he wrote several songs that spoke – very clearly – about this relationship. Songs such as: You Gotta Serve Somebody, Slow Train Coming, and he released a “gospel” album entitled Saved that brought Dylan heat from every direction. His concerts during this time contained most of his new songs and Dylan, himself, “preaching” between songs, even as his fans cried out for him to play his older – more well-known music.
In November of 1980, Bob Dylan began a 2-week concert run where he performed his older songs, and some of his newer songs recorded later in 1980. When asked about why his newer songs were only “remotely religious” in comparison to the others written and recorded in early 1979-1980, Dylan replied: “They’ve evolved. I’ve made my statement, and I don’t think I could make it any better than in some of those songs. Once I’ve said what I need to say in a song, thats it. I don’t want to repeat myself.’ [Dylan] saw no need to repeat himself by continuing to write gospel songs or continuing to preach from the stage; truth is truth, and it stands forever.” From the book Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan
Dylan saw no need to continue to “defend” his faith, scripture, or his relationship with Christ. Yet Dylan, like many others who have proclaimed faith in Christ and simply try to live out their understanding of Christ’s character the best way that they know how, is viewed by many who claim to be “Christian” themselves, as someone who saw Christianity as a passing fad and now has no relationship with Christ. Why? Because he doesn’t talk about it unless asked… and doesn’t use every platform that he’s given as “an opportunity to share the gospel”.
When did being a Christian become so narrow-minded a thing?
Because Dylan, again like many others, doesn’t fit into the boxed in definition of how his relationship with Christ began (it wasn’t in a church saying “the sinners prayer”), how his gifts should be used in a way that CLEARLY separates him from the “secular” industry (he still does “secular” concerts/appearances), how he lives out his relationship with Christ (he still attends and supports Jewish functions – his children are raised Jewish. He doesn’t make “Christian” appearances. He supports “secular” causes. He doesn’t “preach” aloud about his faith. He doesn’t attend a church service regularly), then he is ignored as a Christ-follower by many in “the church” at large. What a shame.
And all around us are other, not-so-public persons, who don’t fit into someone else’s narrow-minded, “in the box” definition of what a Christian should be. Yet they live out Christ in their hearts, minds, words, and actions on a daily basis. They believe fully in Him and His deity. They want to model His heart and life. They study Him and His words. Quietly. Without boasting. Without pomp and circumstance. And with much more success at demonstrating Christ, and reaching the hearts of others, than those who piously and publicly (and loudly) proclaim – from their perches of self-importance and self-righteousness – that they are “Christians” yet treat those unlike them with disrespect, shame, and contempt.
Do you know some “Dylan-esque” persons that say they know Christ yet don’t do what you think they ought? Someone who professes to have a relationship with Christ but doesn’t fit into your God-box? Perhaps your box isn’t one given by God Himself, but created by you in order to keep you safe (and defended) in your own mind. …Perhaps.
Suitcases opened all around with clothes strewn about as if the bags had been carelessly dropped and everything had tumbled out. Clean and soiled mixed together. Wrinkled blouses and useless jackets. Ripped jeans and hemless skirts. Dirty unmentionables and odiferous socks. Mismatched Shoes. And in the midst of the mess I sat.
Unmoving. Unused. Seemingly abandoned. Void in heart.
I seemed to fit right in with the disarray that surrounded me.
Numb. Disheveled. Confused.
Legs splayed. Arms limp. Head hanging down in exhaustion and “give up”. My mind was the only thing that was moving. Rather, racing. Ever replaying mistakes and failures, words of ridiculers and critics, and images of the past.
After resting idle so long amidst the untidiness that had become my life, struggling to my feet began to seem impossible. Picking up the clutter and discarding the stained garments such an overwhelming task when thoughts echoed reruns of blame and shame day and night, casting a fog over my understanding.
And so I sat. And sat some more.
Until that still small voice that had persistently spoken from the beginning finally was heard. The whisper of goodness penetrated through the clamor of condemnation. And as my mind honed in on the words of grace, the winds of the spirit began to blow and the cloudiness began to inch away. Clarity returned… accompanied by power… and a different kind of replay resounding between my ears.
The reminder of God’s unmerited favor, His immeasurable grace, and His irrevocable call seized my attention and gave strength to my soul and soundness to my bones. And so I stood. Determined to cease the lazy-mindedness that allowed past mistakes to stun me to stagnancy. To render me immobile.
I stood and looked long and hard at the baggage around me. At the chaos I’d created, and hadn’t known how to restore to order.
I took a deep refreshing breath from His Spirit. And then I began to do away with the jumbled mess…
One soiled item at a time.
In my years within ministry – and without – I have heard quite a few worship songs with the lyrics containing references to God’s fire or something similar. Typically they are composed as a cry for God to send down his “fire” or his spirit, seemingly to cleanse us, so that we may better serve Christ – or to “ignite” our hearts so that we may carry His power in greater measure and witness with greater boldness and fervor. When I hear these songs I often wonder if the lyricist – or the singer – is aware of what they are truly asking for.
Now before you write me off as a bitter cynic about to bash some very meaningful worship music, “hear” me out. I think you’ll enjoy the read…
There are references to fire throughout the scriptures. However, lyrically – in Christian music – references to fire are most often coupled with a request for God to “burn away the dross” as is mentioned in Malachi 3. Many sing this lyric without even a full understanding of what dross actually is.
Websters defines dross as scum, waste or foreign matter, impurity, and/or something that is inferior.
In times of scripture a refiner would stoke a fire until it would be heated to over 1700 degrees F, which is the melting point for gold. Precious metals would be placed in the fire and, as the gold would begin to liquefy, the impurities and waste would rise to the top and be skimmed away. The refiner would stir the molten gold to bring more dross to the surface to be removed, until no contaminant or corruption remained.
Let me reiterate. 1700 degree flames. Fire that is hot enough to completely liquidize one of the hardest substances on earth and expose all of the flaws for expunging. That heat doesn’t sound comfortable, or even pleasant. And most often that type of “fire” in our lives comes in the form of trouble, heartache, or soul-penetrating events.
Are you ready for that? For your life to be heated by tests and trials, struggles and challenges so that your hardened heart begins to melt – bringing your flaws of anger, mistrust, unforgiveness, and/or doubt to the surface and forcing you to rely solely on the refiner? Or perhaps your refining experience will involve finally grasping that overwhelming understanding of the Father’s white hot love for you and you will be overcome with agonizing gut-wrenching sobs, broken-hearted because of your own sin that you have attempted to hide in your encrusted heart.
Both sound painful. Hard. Excruciating even. Neither one are encounters that stir a desire for a no-holds-barred, bare-feet leap into blistering flames of fire. Yet that is what we ask for when we sing “Send the fire”.
I’m not asking that we do away with songs petitioning God for the refiner’s fire. I’m not arguing that lyrically they are incorrect, or that the songs have no value. On the contrary I believe they are most often penned from the hand of a lyricist who has endured extreme soul-anguish and, heart-broken, wants nothing more than to be purified and holy before God.
What I AM asking is if we, as worshipers – and as singers of songs – honestly consider the words that are passing our lips? And are we seriously, for real, desiring the sin-revealing, agonizing, refining flames to ravage and expose our heart when we sing? If we can authentically and heartily respond with a “yes” of conviction, then I say let’s throw our heads back, open our arms wide and cry aloud to our All-Consuming God: “Lord, Send the fire!”
Sometimes it feels as if life is simply more than we can handle. As if our heart has been strained and pained, for so long, that it is no longer able to drive life through our veins. Often the pain and struggle has continued over such time extended that it is as if we have been drained of the blood that quickens our circulation, strengthens our bones, and enables us to simply breathe.
Weakened and hurting we struggle through each day, head and body bowed under the weight of hopelessness. Dragging our self along, our hands cling frantically to the ground below us in an effort to find something to hold onto – that we might pull ourselves forward for just another day.
We lift our faces in raw desperation searching for something that will allow us to breathe again with ease… something that will stop the painful flow. But we’ve been bleeding and shamefully stooped so many years that it seems as if relief will never be within our grasp.
It is during this most difficult time that we must summon the fortitude, and the courage, to break through the crowds of placating words – or ugly criticisms – and reach with fierce determination for Him. We must clutch the hem of His garment and we must gather strength. We must evoke life. We must draw power. And we must not let go.
We must refuse to allow our grip to be loosened or our fingers pried away until we have regained power… we can stand steady… our breathing is no longer labored… and the hemorrhaging in our wounded heart has ceased.
Clutch His hem as if your very soul-life depends upon it. For during the suffering times of loneliness and pain it is the only thing that will make us whole.
[42b] …As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him.  And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her.  She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.
 “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”
 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”
 Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed.  Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
Spiritual anorexia. An unhealthy, yet seemingly common, condition.
An anorexic is one who stops feeding self and becomes dangerously thin. Skin and bones. Flesh without meat.
The anorexic’s perception is skewed. When an anorexic sees self in the mirror, they see fat – fullness – breadth -weight. They see substance that is, in reality, not there. Unfortunately, there are many Christians who do the same.
In themselves they see “fatness”, spiritual health, substance – and they often want others to know of their great and divine girth. There’s boasting of more depth in their life, more knowledge, more revelation and insight. Greater relationship with God, greater “fullness of the Spirit”, greater capacity for the “meat” of the Word. These are the points for applause in their lives.
However, the great, spiritually fat and healthy picture that they see in the mirror is in contrast to what others see. In the life of a “full-blown” spiritual anorexic, their own words may be the only things that are, indeed, grand and swelling.
If the fruit borne in day-to-day living does not reflect the heart and character of God then the facade of spirituality is demolished. The supposed substance and meat are stripped off to reveal an unhealthy heart surrounded by diseased flesh and dry bones – an empty life disguised behind inflated words and a swelled head. And when the exterior is peeled away and the heart is truly laid bare, the inner health of a person is ultimately revealed through everyday life and actions.
James 1:22-24 speaks of a person who looks at himself in a mirror, steps away from the mirror, and immediately forgets what he really looks like. Why? Because he listens to “the Word” but chooses not to act on it. Thus he deceives himself. So goes the spiritual anorexic.
But at times we may all suffer from a degree of Spiritual Anorexia. We look into the mirror of scripture and we see the truth about ourselves but distractions, excuses, or personal choice causes us to immediately forget what we’ve seen. We pick and choose which parts we are willing to honestly see and obey. Thus we allow ourselves to be deceived and spiritual anorexia begins to seize our heart.
Is there a cure? Absolutely. But the cure is not a quick or pleasant fix. For to be cured we must be willing to examine beyond the outside, beyond the positive opinions of others, beyond the praise and affirmations that we may receive, beyond the self-elevating views that we’ve adopted.
We must delve into the depths of our own hearts, allowing the spotlight of the Holy Spirit to reveal even the deepest, darkest, innermost decaying chambers. We must be willing to look closely and to see… truth. And then we must be willing to repent. To humble ourselves, admit our pride and our gross exaggerations of self, and cry out to God for Him to heal the disease within.
Here they come. You can see them outside the window of your heart as you attempt to hide. They’re gathering supporters in the dark and getting closer. Carrying their torches and their pitchforks. Their voices growing louder as they come near yelling. Shouting. Thrusting their fires of anger into the air crying “Freak!”, “Traitor!”, “Monster!”. And then the dreaded roar as they rush forward screaming “Kill the Beast!”
Your crime? Struggling. Falling. Failing at something. Causing the way that they see you to change. The expectations that they had of you have been shattered. And so has your image. How dare you defy what they believe about you? How dare you mess up? How dare you embarrass them?
You are now a failure. Ugly. A monster worthy of dragging into the streets and ridiculing – persecuting – abusing in front of the world. You are nothing short of a hideous beast!
Ever experienced this? You fail at something and your heart is shattered and broken. You hide behind your pain because you are ashamed and hurt. Struggling to forgive yourself. And to make things even more difficult, your judges seem to be beating down the door to shame you further. It can make for a challenging recovery.
In those times you can often count the number of those who still love you – unconditionally – even in your “beastly” state – on one hand. But that hand is critical. In times of falling and failure it is vital to keep hold of those who are able to look past the mistakes into your damaged heart and are willing to listen, to love, to help, heal and restore. Whatever you do, don’t push them away. Don’t hide from these. Don’t ignore the hand that is reaching out to help in the midst of chaos and judgmentalism. Grab hold and don’t let go.
And when the fires of anger have subsided – when the soul-piercing shouts of judgment become silent, when the crowd of vigilantes has disbursed and you feel safe again – walk out from the rubble. With a humble heart, and head held high, take step after stumbling step, hand in hand with those who have been willing to endure the chaos that has resulted from your failing. And go and tell.
Tell of the obstacles in your path, that you didn’t avoid, that brought about the stumble. Tell of the turmoil and struggle within your own soul. Tell of the pain and humiliation of falling… of the endurance and determination that led to recovery and restoration. And tell of the wonder of unconditional love that has led you out from the rubble. Your telling may be the salvation of another.
But most importantly remember. As you see another stumble and fall, remember how you hid and watched the angry mob swarm to persecute you and resist the urge to pick up a torch of judgment and join the crowd yelling “Kill the Beast!”
One of my best friend’s house burned this past weekend. The fire started in the rear bedroom and burned so hot that it collapsed the floor and burned everything in the basement. In the basement had been stored boxes of books that belonged to me…and books are one of the things that I absolutely treasure.
I have learned so many things from reading. In reading a book I can go places in my mind that my body may never be able to travel. Words paint pictures in my mind. I “feel” the heart of the writer when I read. And God shows me so many things – beyond the written words – in even “every day, ordinary” books… I absorb those things into my heart like a dry sponge. Words, especially written, are one of the things that speaks to the very depths of my soul. So books are a treasure to me. And now most of them were gone. Lost in a pile of charred rubble.
I went with my friend to see her home after the fire. As we stood outside and looked down through that bedroom window into what was left of the basement below, lying on top of the blackness – outside of the pools of black water – was one of the most important books in my life Heart of the Artist. It’s a book about creativity and the heart of God, worship versus performance, servanthood versus stardom, accountability, and how God can use the heart of the artist to reach into others’ souls and touch even the very deepest and darkest places with His love and His light. And there it was. It’s full-color cover was still intact and it stood out to me in the midst of the darkness surrounding it. And God spoke to me, about my life, through that image…
In the last several years, the things that had brought me feelings of security, those things that I had considered stable in my life, had collapsed. Things that had been comfortable and safe were gone. Things that I had invested my life in were no longer there. All had been lost in the rubble of a world that had fallen down all around me, charred from the fires of conflict and anger, seemingly destroyed.
And for the last several years I’ve cried… watering the rubble that was my life with my tears. Tears of shame for the marriage that I had lost. Tears of guilt for the failure that I had become to my children – not living a life that I was willing for them to follow. Tears of grief for the ministry that I loved passionately, and was no longer able to do… no longer “fit” for in my mind. So many tears in the last few years. So many days and nights weeping for things that I had lost hope of ever being restored. Unable to forgive myself. Unable to recover, rebuild, or even heal in some of the wounded places of my heart and soul.
Yet as I wept I yearned for that closeness with God again. I longed to sense Him. To feel His touch. To KNOW that He was still there. That He still heard. That He still loved. (Knowing this with regards to others was easy, but accepting it for myself – one of the impossible things in my own mind). I ached for some kind of confirmation that I was still “worth-it” to Him… that His gifts and callings – in my life – were without repentance… that my heart was still His and His hand was still on my life to minister to others – to use those creative passions in my own heart to touch the hearts of others. This has been my painful journey for the last 5 years. Tears of black water over a life of rubble.
Then today I see, untouched, The Heart of the Artist in the midst of a pile of crumbled, charred, tattered debris.
And although my heart is not untouched by the destruction in my life, God showed me – through this simple image – that my heart is still His. It can be restored. “Full-color” creativity can be uncovered and recovered by Him. My gifts and talents are still intact and He still sees me worthy to carry those gifts.
I am humbled by the reminder that in the midst of the rubble that has been my life of late, God can still use the heart of this artist to reach into – and touch – the hearts and souls of others with His love and his light.